(Lakeside’s homeless dogs fly north to Canadian and American homes thanks to the tireless efforts of their volunteers.)
Joe Howell is a frequent flyer. His loyalty offers a great reward; escorting Mexican rescue dogs to loving, forever homes in the United States and Canada.
Joe is a “flight angel,” as they are affectionately called, for Bone Voyage Dog Rescue, a non-profit group based in Ajijic. He has been a volunteer for 18 months and has certainly earned his angel wings, flying 20 times with approximately five to 10 dogs each flight.
An enthusiastic supporter, Joe, 60, who resides in Ajijic, got involved with Bone Voyage through word of mouth. He says the work is “super rewarding” and has now taken on other responsibilities such as booking spaces on flights and handyman jobs. He says there are so many people who give their time and energy to Bone Voyage, that he is impressed with the impact the group has had on reducing the homeless dog population here at Lakeside.
A lot of the credit goes to the tireless efforts of Bone Voyage dog rescue founder and animal advocate Cari LeClair. The 52-year-old Canadian, who lives in Ajijic full time, established the organization four years ago while volunteering at The Ranch dog rescue. She says she learned that some dogs had been in the kennel for 10 years. “That broke my heart and I started to look for rescue partners.”
A dog sitter from way back, Cari took a two-month dog sitting assignment in Ajijic about five years ago. “I just kept going from house to house on dog sitting jobs; so many people need dog sitters here.” Not surprisingly, when Cari answered the phone for this interview, she was walking dogs. A little out of breath, she says she is currently fostering 25 dogs. “Oops, it’s just 22; three flew to Seattle today,” she says.
The focus of Bone Voyage is moving adoptable dogs to the USA and Canada, and that takes a lot of effort from dedicated volunteers. “We work with the local shelters as well as with people in the Lake Chapala area that have many street dogs in their care. We also assist individuals that find street dogs and don’t know what to do with them.”
Cari says she relies heavily on volunteer Annette Thompson. “She has been with us for two years and has become my right-hand woman. She has been taking on more of my roles and we discuss everything before making decisions.”
Since August 2018, Bone Voyage has flown and bussed more than 3,000 dogs from here to their new homes. They fly dogs out of Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta airports. Some have gone on the Rescue Express bus, on loan to Bone Voyage from owner Mike McCarthy. The specially-equipped bus provides travel flexibility. “We can plan trips wherever we like. We have done four trips so far and are hopeful to do another one the beginning of April,” Cari says. The bus can transport 74 dogs and hundreds have travelled this way, including to Calgary, Alberta, among many other destinations.
Bone Voyage works with rescues in Portland, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Francisco, Chicago, San Diego, Colorado, and Vancouver, Canada. It’s even working to expand into Toronto.
Cari says when people ask, “Why send dogs north when so many people here could adopt?” she responds, “Because we do not have enough adopters here in Ajijic or there’s just not enough interest. Adopting a four-legged, furry friend is not a split moment decision and obviously adopting is more than just ‘Oh, I want that dog because it has big sad eyes,’” she says. Bone Voyage receives many adoption applications from Canadians and Americans and she believes it has become very “fashionable” to adopt a rescue.
Cari says she is grateful and appreciative of the volunteers she has but is searching for more recruits. “I have a handful, about 12 good, reliable volunteer fosters, and we also pay about six or seven Mexican families to take in dogs as well.” However, she explains, the gringo volunteers really do know better what kind of training dogs need to live with folks in the north.
Foster volunteers meet Cari at the veterinarian clinic. “We don’t just give a volunteer a random dog.” She explains they can request a small dog or a female if that’s what they desire. They train and socialize rescue dogs, getting the abandoned or injured canines from the street or local shelters ready for adoption. A foster will leash train, crate train, and potty train the rescues over a period ranging from three weeks to two months. “Over time the foster tells me how the dog is doing and gives me a report. Not all rescue dogs qualify for adoption; some are just too skittish,” she says.
Flight angels don’t need to do any dog training for this job or fill out an application. “If you will fly, we would love you. We just need your time and patience,” Cari says. “All you have to do is give me your plane reservation code and we book dogs on your ticket. We can drive flight angels to the airport or meet them there, and check the dogs in for you. We have to be at the airport early, so we do ask you to sacrifice your time,” she adds. “We ask angels to take five or 11 dogs, depending on the airline (one under the seat and the rest in cargo). Flying to Seattle is easy as all the dogs come out on the other side of Customs, so the dogs do not have to be moved by flyers at all. If we fly elsewhere, we may reduce those numbers depending on what the airline is willing to do.”
Joe says being a flight angel is “super easy.” Asked about any funny experiences, he chuckles and tells the story of Toro, the escape artist. Airline staff called Joe to take care of a dog that was loose in the belly of the plane. “I was hoisted into the belly to get Toro, who,” he says, “was a very sweet pit bull, back into his crate.” Toro had managed to chew through the ties on his crate. He says this is a very rare situation and that 99.9 per cent of trips happen without a hitch.
Originally from Seattle, Joe says many Bone Voyage flights go from Guadalajara to Seattle. Once landed, the A-team, described as a passionate group of 12 to 15 dog rescuers, meets flyers. At Peace Arch Park, the A-team hands the pooches over the border to the Canadian adopters.
“This has worked wonderfully during the pandemic. They just have to be careful not to put a foot over the border,” Cari says. During the last nine days of January alone, 58 dogs were booked to fly there.
Asked what inspires her to remain devoted and committed to helping dogs in need, Cari says, “Seeing where they come from and where they end up keeps me going.”
To learn more about volunteer opportunities, adoption opportunities, or to make a donation, visit bonevoyagedogrescue.com. Bone Voyage also has a presence on Instagram and Facebook; Bone Voyage Rescue and Bone Voyage Happily Ever After. The organization is a registered charity in Canada, and in Ajijic it is listed as one of 15 charities on the Lake Chapala Charities website. Just click on the Bone Voyage tab to make a donation through PayPal.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com